Where Did That Come From? Toponyms

On Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we enter the sometimes confusing but always intriguing world of the English language. One of the curiosities of language is how words are created and evolve. The study of word origins is etymology, and today’s topic is  toponyms.

What is a toponym? Well, “topo” means place and “nym” means name. A toponym, therefore, is a word that derives from a place. Some familiar ones might be Bohemian (a free spirit, Bohemia); Neanderthal (an intellectually backward man, Neander Valley); and limerick (a five-lined aabba poem, Limerick, Ireland).

But I was surprised to learn certain other words are toponyms. For this post, I must credit John Bemelmans Marciano, author of Toponymity. His book masterfully describes the origins of dozens of toponyms, with a bit of humor thrown into the mix.

Here are a few toponyms and their interesting backgrounds.

Bikini. In 1946, two big things were happening: Americans were conducting atomic tests in the South Pacific, and clothing designers were shrinking swimwear. Jacques Heim designed “the world’s smallest swimsuit” and called it the Atom. Soon after, Frenchman Louis Réard designed a two-piece swimsuit which scandalously exposed the navel and claimed that it split the Atom. The Americans’ nuclear testing had started a few days before at Bikini Atoll, so Réard called his creation the bikini. Since their inception, nuclear bomb explosions have been rare, but bikinis are seen in huge numbers every summer.

Reard hired a stripper to model the first bikini.

Danish. President Woodrow Wilson was a widower. Then he fell in love with Edith Galt and married her in 1915. Their White House wedding was a huge affair, and Danish pastry chef L.C. Klitteng used the event to introduce his country’s pastry to the American public. Soon after, he convinced Manhattan businessman Herman Gertner to begin offering these delectable pastries at his restaurants. Eventually, Gertner got out of the restaurant business and started manufacturing danishes instead. Meanwhile, the Danes call this pastry wienerbrod, or Viennese bread, after those people who taught the Danes how to make it.

Call it what you want, it's delicious.

Hack. Hackney, England was once a smaller village outside London and was well-known for its horses in the Middle Ages. A hackney horse was not bred for work or war or even hunting, but for the mere pleasure of riding. Thus, hackneys became popular for renting, and all rented horses became known as hackneys. Shortened, it became “hack.” When something is rented a lot, however, it tends to get worn out. Thus, the transition of the word “hack” to mean that worn-out, work-for-hire type – which now applies specifically to writers.

There's got to be a hack in there somewhere.

Jeans. Fustian cloth was “the first widely used cotton fabric in Europe,” and it included linen on the base. It was both soft and easily dyed. A cheaper, tougher version of this cloth was made in Genoa and named after the city (“Geane” or “Jeane” in French). Both fustian and denim became popular in America. Having similar uses, their names became confused, or interchangeable. So when denim became the stuff of pants, the name “jeans” stuck.

Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, invented blue jeans.

Morgue. The original Morgue was the dungeon of the Châtelet prison where anonymous corpses were dropped off. Visitors were free to wander around looking for their lost loved ones. The place was named after an archaic French word, morguer – meaning “to stare at questioningly.” Edgar Allen Poe made the name morgue more widely known in his tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Today’s morgues also store the dead and ask family members to identify loved ones; they are all named after the original.

The least disturbing photo of a morgue I found.

Serendipity. Author Horace Walpole invented the word “serendipity,” in a letter he wrote in January 1754. He based it on a fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip,” in which the princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Serendip is the ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka.

There's something you didn't expect.

Spa. The town of Spa, Belgium became known in the 13th century for its hot springs, which were touted as healthy for both bathing and ingesting. The fad of bathing in springs spread, and eventually the English opened a resort at a spring in Yorkshire known as the English Spaw. Why they added the “w”, I don’t know, but it’s gone again. Thankfully, our spas are more than hot springs and include everything from baths to mani-pedis to massage, which are still good for our health, if only our mental health.

Looks relaxing, doesn't it?

Tarantula. Taranto, Italy was once so infested with a particular type of spider that the arachnid became known as a tarantula. However, these were not the tarantulas that we think of – you know, the ones that Indiana Jones and his assistant encounter in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Americans borrowed the name “tarantula” to label the big, furry spiders that most would rather avoid.

That is NOT my hand!

These are just a few toponyms – words that derive from places. I recommend Marciano’s book, Toponymity, if you are interested in etymology. He provides further detail for each of these words and expounds on many more.

What other toponyms do you know? Do you enjoy discovering the origins of words? Do you want to suggest a neologism and coin your own toponym? Go right ahead.

26 thoughts on “Where Did That Come From? Toponyms

  1. As usual, I’ve learned something from your blog. I had never heard of toponyms–or if I had, I’d forgotten. The only toponym I can think of offhand is “Coney Island” referring to a hot dog. I’m sure there are many I don’t even realize are toponyms. Thanks for this post. You’ve given me a new challenge–looking for toponyms.

  2. Julie, I LOVE your Wednesday blogs about words. I love words and I think it came from my Catholic schooling when we had to learn Latin. These were extra-fun because I enjoy discovering the origins of words.

    1. Latin is such a terrific background for etymology! I remember my high school vocabulary unit focusing on Latin stems. From my knowledge of that, sometimes I can figure out the meaning of a word I don’t know. I wish I had studied Latin sometimes.

  3. A wealth of cool info, julie. I’m so impressed with your research. For us “word nerds” this is like manna from heaven. I had three years of Latin in high school and it was my favorite class by far. It helped so much when i went to Physical Therapy school. Knowing Latin derivatives put me way ahead of the curve in learning medical terminology. Of course the extensor digiti minimi would extend the little finger…why wouldn’t it?

    Thanks for all the great word sources. I especially like the “serendipity” one. If author Horace Walpole can make up words, why can’t we?

    Oh, and I love your new blog site. Very nice. At some point soon, I’ll be following suit. Blogger makes me crazy!

    1. PJ – Thanks! I had a college roommate who took anatomy & physiology, and all of the Latin terms nearly drove her insane. I’m sure your Latin has been a great tool.

      By the way, the import feature in WordPress made the blog move easier. But I still have some tweaking to do with older posts. Glad you stopped by.

  4. Cool post! I’ve never heard of toponyms. There’s one I know that’s lurking just off to the side in my mind, but I can’t remember it now. It will probably come to me at 3AM LOL. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I don’t have anything to contribute other than thanks for the lesson! I didn’t know most of this stuff, and it was very interesting. Love your Wednesday posts:)

  6. Thanks, Stacy! I love my Wednesday posts too – writing them, that is. It’s my schtick, I guess – kind of like your Thriller Thursdays, which I look forward to each week.

  7. Cool article. I’d never heard the term toponym before, now I’ll be hunting them.
    Like bedlam, from St. Mary of Bethleham (London’s first psychiatric hospital)
    Damask, fabric from Damascus
    China (the dishes) from China (the country)
    Shanghaied, from Shanghai China
    Skid Row was an actual place in Seattle
    Tuxedo comes from Tuxedo Park in NY

  8. Love this — and I love toponyms! Wanted to add on to the part about jeans, though, because the word ‘denim’ is a toponymn itself. It’s a cloth originally from Nimes, France: de Nimes = denim. Words are wonderful!!!!

  9. I also heard a story once that the name for denim was coined because the fabric used to be manufactured and shipped from a town in France called “Nim” and the French word for “from” is “de” so on when the fabric arrived at it’s destinations the return address would always say, “de Nim”. And so it was called denim.

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